Read Sultan's Wife Online

Authors: Jane Johnson

Sultan's Wife

Copyright © 2012 Jane Johnson

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication, reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system without the prior written consent of the publisher—or in the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, license from the Canadian Copyright Licensing agency—is an infringement of the copyright law.

Doubleday Canada and colophon are registered trademarks

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Johnson, Jane, 1951-
The sultan's wife / Jane Johnson.

eISBN: 978-0-385-67000-5

I. Title.

PR6060.O357S84 2012   823'.914   C2011-908529-1

The Rumi poems quoted in the book on pp. 130, 131 are used with the permission of the copyright holders and are taken from
Rumi: Hidden Music
© Maryam Mafi and Azima Melita Kolin, HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

The Sultan's Wife
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Cover design: Leo Nickolls
Cover images: © Colin Anderson/Getty Images

Published in Canada by Doubleday Canada,
a division of Random House of Canada Limited

Visit Random House of Canada Limited's website:


For Abdel

First 5th Day of Rabī al-Awwal Year 1087
Anno Hegirae (1677 in the Christian calendar)
Meknes, Kingdom of Morocco

The rain has been coming down hard since the early hours, turning the ground to a quagmire. It beats on the roof tiles and on the terraces where usually women hang out washing and spy on the comings and goings of the men below. It beats on the green faience of the Chaouia Mosque and on the four golden apples and the crescent moon atop its tall minaret. It streaks the walls surrounding the palace with dark stains like blood.

The artisans stand with their robes plastered to their bodies, staring at the massive slabs of cedar for the main gate, now sodden and mud-spattered. No one thought to protect the wood against rain: this is the time when marigolds should carpet the scarred red hills like drifts of orange snow and figs begin to swell in city gardens.

A continent away, the French king is engaged in extravagant plans for his palace and gardens at Versailles. Sultan Moulay Ismail, Emperor of Morocco, has declared he will construct a palace to dwarf this Versailles: the walls will run from here in Meknes for three hundred miles over the mountains of the Middle Atlas all the way to Marrakech! The first stage – the Dar Kbira, with its twelve towering pavilions, mosques and hammams, courtyards and gardens, kitchens and barracks and koubbas – is nearing completion. The Bab al-Raïs, the main gate to the complex, is to be inaugurated in a day's time. Provincial governors from all parts of the empire have arrived for the dedication, bringing with them presents of slaves, cloth-of-gold, French clocks
and silver candlesticks. At midnight Ismail plans to slaughter a wolf with his own hands, set its skull in the wall and bury its body beneath the gateway. But how, if the door itself – symbol of the entire grand enterprise – is not finished? And what will the sultan do if his plans are thwarted?

At least one of the artisans is contemplatively feeling the back of his neck.

Across the compound a group of European slaves toils away on top of the outer walls, repairing a monstrous hole where there has been an overnight collapse. The pisé is waterlogged: the sand and lime were probably not correctly cured in the first place, and now the rain has made it fatally unstable. No doubt the repair will fail too, and then everyone will be flogged for negligence. Or worse.

The workers are meagre of flesh and pale of skin, their faces sharpened by hunger, their tunics ripped and filthy. One of them, heavy-bearded and hollow-eyed, gazes across the desolate scene. ‘God's bones, it's cold enough to kill hogs.'

His neighbour nods glumly. ‘As grim as Hull in winter.'

‘At least there's ale in Hull.'

‘Aye, and women.'

A general sigh.

‘Even the women of Hull look good to me after five months in this place.'

‘And to think you went to sea to get away from women!'

The laughter this remark provokes is brief and bitter. Survivors of months in the stinking underground matamores in which they have been confined by these foreign devils after being seized from merchant vessels and fishing boats from Cork to Cornwall, they have spent their first weeks in Morocco telling their stories to one another, keeping the dream of home alive.

Will Harvey straightens up suddenly, pushing his rain-slick hair out of his face. ‘Christ's eyes, will you look at that?'

They all turn. An inner door within the great palace door opens and an odd contraption pokes out, followed by a tall figure that has to bend almost double to exit, then draws itself up to an exaggerated height. It wears a
scarlet robe partially covered by a white woollen cloak with gold borders. Above its turbaned head it holds a round testern of cloth on a long handle which shields it from the driving rain.

‘What the devil
it?' Harvey demands.

‘I believe it's a bongrace,' ventures the Reverend Ebslie.

‘Not the implement, you dolt: the thing that holds it. Look at how it picks its way like a trained Spanish pony!'

The figure moves gingerly between the pools of standing water. Over its jewelled slippers it wears a pair of high cork pattens at which the mud sucks greedily. The workers watch its progress with growing fascination and soon begin to catcall:

‘Clownish fool!'


It is a rare pleasure to pass a fraction of their torment on to another, even if their target is a foreigner and does not comprehend the insults.

‘Mincing coxcomb!'

‘Lily-white quean!'


As if this last and most innocuous remark has found its mark, the figure suddenly halts and, tilting the ridiculous contraption back, gazes up at them. If its demeanour and clothing have given the appearance of wilting femininity, the face that is turned up to the hecklers gives the lie to that impression. Lily-white it most certainly is not; nor delicate either. It looks as if it has been carved out of obsidian, or some hard wood blackened by age. Like a war-mask, grim and immobile, it gives no sign of the human beneath – except that a warning line of white shows under the black iris of the eye as the man's gaze scorches over them.

‘You should be more careful whom you insult.'

A shocked silence falls over the group of slaves.

‘One click of my fingers will bring your overseers running.'

In the shelter of a doorway some thirty yards away four men are brewing up a samovar of tea. The vapour from the pot wreaths around them so that they look like wraiths. But the impression of insubstantiality is deceptive: given the opportunity to dole out punishment they would abandon their
tea-making in an eye-blink and come storming into the world of men, whips and cudgels at the ready.

The prisoners shuffle awkwardly, too late realizing the gravity of their error. No one else speaks English in this godforsaken country!

The courtier regards them dispassionately. ‘Those men have been chosen for their ruthlessness. Not an ounce of common humanity remains to them. They are instructed to punish the lazy and the insubordinate without mercy and will kill you and bury your corpses in the very walls you are rebuilding without any regret. There are always more to take your place. Life is cheap in Meknes.'

The captives know this is no less than the truth. Desperately, they look to Will Harvey as their spokesman (after all it was his fault for drawing their attention to the man in the first place); but his head is bowed as if waiting for a blow. No one says a word. The tension is palpable.

At last Harvey raises his head. His expression is mulish. ‘Are you a man? Or a devil? Would you see us die for a few unwise words?'

There is an intake of breath from the others; but for a moment the courtier gives him a bleak smile; then the mask is back in place. ‘Am I a man? Ah, that is a good question …' He pauses, allowing them a good look at his gold-trimmed cloak, the expensive bracelets on his muscled black forearms, the silver bond on his left ear. ‘I am a half-thing, a nobody: a slave, just like you. You should be thankful that when they cut me, they did not take my heart.' The testern swings back to obscure his face.

No one says a word, unsure what is meant. They watch as the courtier continues to pick his way through the mud towards the long stretch of waste ground that lies between the palace and the
beyond. He passes the overseers; pauses. They hold their breath. Clearly, greetings have been exchanged, but no more. At last, chastened, cognizant that they have survived a hair's-breadth escape, they resume their never-ending toil. They live to work – and die – another day. And that, at the final count, is all any of us can ask.


‘Peace be upon you, sir.'

Sidi Kabour is a slight, elderly man with an immaculate white beard, carefully manicured hands and perfect manners. You would never take him to be the greatest expert in poisons in all Morocco. He tilts his head and smiles up at me, blandly polite, the neutral formality of his greeting designed to give the impression he has never met me before, as if I am just another random customer who has stumbled on his hidden stall at the back of the Henna Souq, drawn by the scent of incense, Taliouine saffron and more illicit substances. In truth he knows me well: my mistress has frequent need of his skills.

At once my court-bred instincts are on the alert. I look down at him, my already considerable height further elevated by the ridiculous pattens. ‘And with you,
.' Giving nothing away.

His left eye twitches and I glance past him. There is a man in the shadows at the rear of the shop. When I look back the storekeeper purses his lips.
Be careful

‘What rain!' I try for joviality.

‘My wife, God watch over her, took all the carpets from the guest salon yesterday at noon and hung them out on the terrace to air.'

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